Year B, Proper23
Once there was a young woman who lived alone in a cottage in a wood. She was lovely in all ways. One day a prince was hunting in the forest and became separated from his hunting party. He grew very tired, hungry and thirsty searching for them. So he was much relieved when he happened upon the cottage of the young woman. He stopped to ask for water and for directions to the nearest path leading out of the wood. The young woman welcomed him warmly. Not only did she bring fresh water for himself and his horse, she also invited him in for tea. When all was ready with the table set with fresh scones and a steaming pot of tea, they sat down. The young woman poured tea for the prince and then for herself. Just as the prince was about to lift the cup to his lips the young woman cried out, “Stop!” Quickly she took the cup from him and using the tip of her finger she drew out a small fly that had fallen into the prince’s tea. She took to fly to the windowsill blowing gently on its wings to dry them out. After a time she saw that the fly was able to flutter its wings and clean itself with its front legs. Only then did she return to the table to pour the prince a fresh cup of tea.
(Adapted from Animalia by Barbara Berger, Tricycle Press in Berkeley, CA, 1982, page 14.)
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”(Mark 10:31).
What does it mean to be first and last in our highly competitive culture? Does being “last” mean that we never reveal our God-given gifts or speak up for ourselves? Is being “first” a bad thing, an immoral thing? If we are trying to do good and great things for God’s Kingdom in the world do we get to “promote” those actions so that others will join the efforts? Or do we trust that it is all word of mouth? Would Jesus be on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? Would his disciples be sending email blasts about his latest healing or profound saying?
Perhaps I am venturing into the realm of the ridiculous but I do wish I could have a face-to-face conversation with Jesus about the crazy competitive culture of our times. How to negotiate it with love and compassion and yet not hide “my” God-given light under a bushel basket. And perhaps the key is to remember that I am not letting “my” light shine but instead the light of God shine through me.
Our first two texts in the narrative track of the lectionary for this season speak of seeking God when God seems to be hiding and silent. Job confesses that he is making a bitter complaint. He knows he is in the depths of despair and the feeling of abandonment. His cries echo and are echoed by the writer of Psalm 22. “I am poured out like water, … my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; … you lay me in the dust of death”(Psalm22:14-15). Job’s cries also echo the psalmist’s remembrance that God was “took me from the womb … kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (Psalm 22:9-10). These texts indicate faith even in the midst of complete darkness and unknowing, even when faith does not feel like faith but like despair.
Job and the psalmist’s search for God reminds me of a Hasidic story of a man searching for God. Prayer and study do not seem to be the pathways for him so he sets out on a literal journey to find God. He travels from town to town asking where to find God and always hearing, “Pray” or “Study” or “Look within you” and never finding God. One day he reaches a small village and when he asks the rabbi where to find God the rabbi replies, “Why God is here in this place! Why don’t you stay a few days and see if you meet God?” So the man stays. And stays and stays. The days turn into weeks and the weeks in to months and the months into years. Until the man realizes that in the life of community he has indeed found God. You can find a full version of this story on the website of Rabbi Debra Orenstein, well-know speaker and author, at http://www.rabbidebra.com/where-is-god.html .
Our next four texts continue the question of “where to find God” with different emphases. The prophet, Amos, admonishes the people to “Seek God and live” or perish. “Hate evil and love good; establish justice in the gate”(Amos 5:6a, 15a) Amos speaks to our contemporary context of competition in business and military or political policies that disenfranchise the poor, the widowed, the orphaned – all who are the least of these that Jesus teaches us to serve. “Establish justice in the gate” which was the place of commerce in the city, the place where merchants entered in to trade and where the military entered in to rule and/or protect.
What if we were to take the prophet’s words to heart in “establishing justice in the gate” of our economic world? My imagination shows me a line of people waiting to receive food — perhaps in a buffet or cafeteria situation or maybe it’s an abundant potluck. Some of the people are emaciated and look as if they have not eaten for days while others are healthy and robust. It is quite apparent that there is enough food for all on the table. Which group should go first in line? It is too obvious for words. Yet this is not the way in which our contemporary competitive commerce situation always operates. Hmmm….
Psalm 90 invites us to tend our lives wisely and trust in God to teach us God’s ways of “prospering the work of our hands.” When we ask that the work of our hands prosper it is in the context of manifesting God’s work in the world. The epistle reading from Hebrews reassures us that in seeking God and seeking to live God’s ways in the world we have a companion. Jesus, the Christ, is “high priest…who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” With Jesus we can seek God “with boldness that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 12:15-16).
Jesus reassures us in the passage from Mark’s gospel that “for God all things are possible.” Even rich people can pursue and find God despite their tendency for preoccupation with material wealth. Persistence in seeking God changes our hearts and thus our lives. Persistence in seeking God will open our eyes to the establishment of justice in the gates of our times where so much injustice reigns. And lest we become overwhelmed in the darkness of all the needs we will find when our eyes and hearts are opened, persistence in seeking God will bring the nurture, the challenge, the strength to take one action at a time using our God-given gifts to meet those needs as we bring in God’s Kingdom here on earth. If we are one of those who has been repeatedly “first” at the table of God’s abundance we will discover the grace to step to the back of the line and joyfully empower those who have been last to come for nourishment.
There is one more story that speaks to my questions about seeking God in the midst of the competition in today’s world. It is also a Hasidic tale that I have found recounted in several places without a specific reference to its origins. The story helps us remember that finding the places where we can seek God with persistence and with purity of focus and heart is important. I call it “The Rabbi’s Child.” You can read it at http://guesthouse.org/where-is-god/.
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015 and beyond. Text and photos to be reprinted with permission only.